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Lithium Batteries – Does the Good Outweigh the Bad?

We’ve all seen the headlines and read the stories for several years – “Are lithium batteries to blame for recent boat blazes?” about yacht fires blamed on faulty lithium batteries – in one case a bad battery on the yacht owner’s water scooter seemed to be the cause of the fire. The lithium battery in the Tesla involved in the Route 25 collision in East Marion last week burned so hot and so fast it trapped the car’s occupants inside as firemen found it difficult to put out the fire because of the vehicle’s lithium battery.
Tesla’s Model X has a high-voltage battery that triggers a chain of chemical reactions that prolong fires when the battery is damaged. How an electric vehicle fire starts is incorporated in “Why Teslas keep catching on fire” online, updated January 2023. These Tesla batteries cost between $13,000 and $20,000.

“Fire halts Ford 150 production” was the headline for the article last week about Ford discontinuing production and distribution temporarily of their Lightning electric pickups after a battery caught fire during a pre-delivery quality check. The fire happened in an outdoor lot and damaged two nearby vehicles as well as the F-150.
Last month four people were hospitalized after a laptop battery fire on a Newark bound United Airlines flight returned to San Diego. The flight crew was able to contain the fire and their quick action averted a bigger fire in the passenger area of the plane’s cabin.
Now widely used to power our smartphones, laptops, small power tools, appliances, cars and boats, the lithium battery came about after work started in the 1800s that was further developed when scientists realized that lithium would work as a battery anode. As lithium was studied in depth in the 1900s, the need for a better battery was growing. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there were lithium batteries available. By the 1980s the Eveready Battery Company was commercially making lithium batteries.
The first electric vehicle was powered by a disposable battery that used crude oil to turn the wheels. British inventor Robert Anderson presented it at an industry conference in 1835. Rechargeable batteries became available in 1859. The Volt was the first hybrid electric car and Tesla’s Roadster was the first all-electric car to do more than 200 miles on a charge.
When you consider all the attributes of the lithium battery it may seem like a no-brainer to replace what you have on your boat with the new technology. West Marine considers lithium batteries a good choice for boats and answers questions you may have online in their recently updated “Are lithium batteries a good choice for you?” They recommend lithium iron phosphate batteries and cite the extra power, faster charging rate, lighter weight, longevity and battery management system to justify the higher cost of changing to lithium batteries. Noting that most lithium batteries are not designed for starting engines, they offer a battery they say is one of the only lithium batteries rated for engine starting.
Amped, the large Midwestern marine electronics provider tells in their newsletter why they do not sell lithium-cranking batteries. They say your charging system is made for lead acid batteries and will provide a higher current that will cause the system to work harder and hotter. They say charging below freezing risks damaging the battery or you may not be able to charge the battery. Unless you have a battery management system your battery could be affected by heat, improper installation or variances in voltage. Heat would cause your battery to stop outputting power and idle your motor or shut off during use.

In analyzing electrical fires for five years by studying their claim files, BOATUS found that the DC electrical system, the batteries, lights and wiring, caused more than a third of the fires and that 19% of the boat fires were connected with the engines or batteries. So many combustibles in one place – fuel, oil, fumes – often combined with undersize wiring, loose connections and engine vibration – could be the start of a fire.
When BOATUS assessed the risks and costs of installing lithium batteries on a boat they explained the process of how a lithium battery goes from functional to thermal runaway. What tends to put lithium batteries in line for fire and explosion is explained online at BOATUS lithium-ion batteries: HandleWithCare. BOATUS sees lithium-ion batteries as an evolving technology, still not perfected and thus the costs and risks still outweigh the benefits for most recreational boaters.
The higher cost of lithium batteries will keep some of us from investing in this new technology. The boater who sees his boat as a long-term investment may not mind the cost of the peripherals that have to come with the new batteries. The battery charger, inverter and battery monitor system need to be coordinated with the lithium batteries. There are a lot of plusses – more usable power, faster charging, lighter weight, increased cycle life and battery monitoring. If you have a professional handle your changeover to lithium batteries you need to ask about the training he’s had or if you feel confident about your electrical skills you can do it yourself.
The kinds of lithium batteries have increased and the electric car batteries are not the same as the boat batteries. The categories are listed and described in Lithium Hub’s LIFEPO4BATTERIES:WHATTHEYAREANDWHYTHEY’RETHEBEST. The LiFePO4 battery generates very little heat due to its chemical structure and is considered the most stable and most reliable of all lithium batteries.
A car carrier, the Felicity Ace, was crossing the Atlantic Ocean recently to deliver some new Bentleys, Lamborghinis and Porsches when it had a fire in the cargo area that caused it to sink in 10,000 feet of water. All the cars went down with the ship. The growing number of high-loss fires has been the subject of high-level insurance meetings. The Felicity Ace loss cost the insurer $400 million. As is often the case, lithium-ion batteries burn so hot for so long that all the evidence is destroyed.
The lithium batteries are built into the bottom of the cars by all the manufacturers so it’s quite possible that a lithium battery could have hit an obstruction on the ship as it was being loaded which would have gone unnoticed but would have caused the battery to generate heat and cause thermal runaway that ignites surrounding areas.
The lithium batteries have caused so many fires that were so hard to extinguish that firefighters know more time and more water are needed. People who have had the experience of a fire or explosion from a lithium battery have found that small fires can be contained with fire blankets made for such a fire. The lithium fire does not respond well to water or the fire extinguisher in your kitchen or garage.
There are ways to anticipate a lithium battery fire or explosion – it will overheat when damaged or it may look swollen or have lumps or bulges or leakage. They might make a hissing or crackling noise. The most obvious sign of trouble is smoke. If you see or smell smoke you need to turn off the device the battery is powering and pull the plug, move the battery to a safe place, preferably outside away from anything combustible without touching it with your bare hands.
If these batteries were as safe as some say, why would a company like Hitachi offer a foreign matter analyzer that detects and analyzes foreign matter? They saw the risk of ignition of lithium batteries caused by contamination when the batteries were being assembled. Since this continues to be a problem in the production process that means you could get a battery that looks perfect that is actually contaminated and sometime in the future may give you a fire or explosion problem. BOATUS sees the lithium battery as an evolving technology not yet perfected and they have the long-term experience to make that judgment.